Simply put, Jacques Pépin is a culinary living legend. Having begun his career at age 13, he worked in such esteemed restaurants as the Plaza-Athénée in Paris and Le Pavillon in New York before heading up research and development for the Howard Johnson hotel group. In addition, he’s published dozens of cookbooks, had multiple television shows, and taught in culinary schools around the country. He even is a Chevalier de l’Ordre es Arts et des Lettres and holds the Légion d’honneur, the highest civilian recognition in France. His latest book is the just-released Essential Pepin, which modernizes a whopping 700 of his favorite recipes from his cooking career, and which is a companion book to the 26-part public television series of the same name. In a time when cookbooks can be so complicated or trend-focused, Essential Pepin stands out in its simplicity and clarity, highlighting the enduring importance of technique. We called up Jacques to learn more about the book and his culinary philosophy.
This book has hundreds of recipes and is considered your opus. How did you go about deciding which recipes made it into the book?
Well, it was a bit of give and take. When I started, I had over 2,000 recipes. But it was too redundant; I had maybe 18 recipes on salmon so we eliminated some of them. After that the idea was whether I would leave the recipes as they were to show a moment in time, like in last year’s New York Times cookbook. To make it more useful, I had to redo a fair amount of work and change the timing of cooking, especially with the vegetables and fish and the amount of fat used. The recipes make a nice bunch all together. My editor wanted to have more cookies, and I wanted more offal and lesser cuts of meat, so we compromised.
Do you have any favorite recipes?
I don’t know. This is a book of who I am. It’s not a book of French cookery or a book of non-French cookery. I don’t try to be French. I don’t think that much about it. The recipe for black bean soup was influenced from my wife, who was born in New York City and had a Puerto Rican mother. That’s not French at all. The oyster chowder isn’t French either; it’s American. And by the time you get to ceviche or beef chili, you’re going to see differences from turkey in cream sauce, which is French.
In the introduction you talk about the food of your youth during and after the war and how that affected your culinary philosophy. Can you elaborate on that?
I suppose I am miserly in the kitchen and my own taste takes me to simple things. For me, now, after many years of teaching, I look for the simplest things possible and made with fresh ingredients for full flavor.
In your career, you’ve done television, books, teaching, and cooking in restaurants. Which has been the most meaningful and why?
There’s no question that the hardest of all of them is to work in a restaurant. I opened a restaurant in 1970 called La Potagerie. It was a high-volume type of soup place, and prior to that I worked at Howard Johnson. I never would have been able to open La Potagerie or do the World Trade Center with Joe Baum or consult at the Russian Tea Room if I hadn’t had the training at Howard Johnson. When I started moving [on from restaurants], it coincided with the opening of cooking schools around the country. I went to one or two and that’s what I ended up doing, teaching 40 weeks a year, and I found that very exciting. I’d do two classes a day, four days a week, but I’d repeat menus. It was hard to do, but not as hard as working for 14 hours behind the stove.
You learned to cook through apprenticeships. Yet now you’re a dean at the French Culinary Institute. What do you see as the differences between the two modes of culinary education?
They are two different worlds and very different from each other. After three years of apprenticeship, I’d never have been able to do what the students do [in culinary school] after six months. When I happen to be at the French Culinary Institute [Full disclosure: I attended that school.] and it’s the students’ final exam, I’ll be a judge and I’m flabbergasted at what they can do. But my fingers were much faster than what they do. Culinary school costs a fortune and, in addition to that, our average student is maybe 28 to 35 years old. We have lawyers, doctors, and accountants — people who want to know the process. When I was an apprentice, I was 13 and the chef, he’d say, “Do that.” And you wouldn’t ever say, “Why?” You’d do it and do it and do it. And after a year, you get to go to the stove. You get to learn through osmosis, which is very different than now. … At my time it was rough. Chefs would kick you in the rear end for nothing, and, of course, we don’t do that anymore. We thought that was the way that it supposed to be, and then by the time you’re a chef, you’d have that attitude and then you realize that it doesn’t have to be that way.
What advice then do you have for aspiring chefs?
That they should go in that business for the right reasons. If a woman told me, “My son is crazy about cooking,” I’d say, “For Easter break or holiday, go to a restaurant, put him in there to [be an apprentice and] do dish-washing or see how it runs; see if he gets excited by the hoopla.” I think not to have experienced anything in the restaurant business, even if you go to a great school like the French Culinary Institute, it’s very important to get exposed to all that and to go into it for the right reasons — that is, for the love of it. Cooking is really an act of love in that you always cook for others, whether it’s your wife or your dog or your lover. It’s about giving pleasure. Chefs were on the bottom of the social scale 30 years ago, and to mothers who once wanted their kids to marry doctors and lawyers, we are now geniuses! Now people say, “I’d love to do television or write books,” and I tell them that if they want to go into the business to be famous or to be the next Bobby Flay or Rachael Ray, it very likely won’t happen and you’ll get lots of disappointment. Do it because you love it.
Who are some chefs you admire today?
If you ask me the greatest chef now, certainly people like Thomas Keller, Dan Barber, people like this, David Chang. There are so many. It used to be that years ago we’d tell people you have to go to Europe. I still tell people that so they can see the markets and the bistros. It’s always good to take time to develop your point of view. Thirty years ago, I’d have said you had to go to do that. But we have more three-star restaurants in New York City than in Paris now.
Check back in tomorrow, when Jacques reveals his tips for cooking a Thanksgiving turkey.